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NPR Tiny Desk concerts to enjoy during containment

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NPR

NPR Tiny Desk concerts to enjoy during containment

As most of the country continues to operate under “shelter in place” orders, with limited to no businesses open and daily life restricted to the confines of home, finding creative ways to pass the time can be a bit challenging. Checking out new music is a great way to break up the day, and while there aren’t any live concerts happening in the near future, it’s still possible to catch up on the latest music online. NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series is a unique option for discovering new (or new to you) artists, with all of their concerts taking place 100% online. Created to provide a more intimate setting for musicians and fans alike, the shows tend to run between 15–20 minutes, as performers from around the world take the “stage” in what is a very unusual setting; a desk in the NPR offices.

Singer-songwriter Laura Gibson is said to be the inspiration behind the origins of the concerts. In 2008, “All Songs Considered”host Bob Boilen and NPR Music Editor Stephen Thompson attended one of her shows, and were frustrated that the noise levels in the venue kept them from hearing Gibson’s voice. After joking that Gibson should perform at Boilen’s desk, they arranged for her to do so, and posted the 15-minute “concert” online. Since then, the Tiny Desk series has grown into one of NPR’s most popular events, with artists from across the globe vying to perform. There have been more than 600 Tiny Desk concerts recorded to date, and they have become a much-sought-after accomplishment for both established and new artists.

Stacker sorted through NPR's editorial lists of top Tiny Desk concerts and manually compiled a diverse selection of 50. If you’re looking to explore new and different music, or revisit some of your favorites, take a look at Stacker’s curated playlist of NPR greats.

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Laura Gibson

Gibson’s 2008 performance included the folk songs “Hands in Pockets” and “Nightwatch,” both singles from her 2006 album, “If You Come to Greet Me,” as well as two unreleased songs. The 15-minute concert, which took place at Bob Boilen’s desk, has since been viewed more than 95,000 times on YouTube.

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Vic Chesnutt

Performing in June 2008, while he was on tour to promote his album, “North Star Deserter,” Chesnutt’s set list includes songs from the new album as well as some older favorites. His songwriting and music skills were admired by many other well-known artists, with R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe producing two of his albums, and stars like Madonna covering his songs. Chesnutt died in 2009, having released a total of 17 albums over the course of his career.

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Tom Jones

While the Tiny Desk concerts were initially created to promote more intimate, quiet artists, legendary crooner Tom Jones expressed an interest in appearing—and Boilen couldn’t say no. Jones shows off his skills in the March 2009 show, jokingly referring to it as a “Big Desk Concert” and performing with musical director and guitarist Brian Monroney. His set list includes hits “If He Should Ever Leave You,” “We Got Love,” and “End of the Road.”

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Thao Nguyen

Indie-folk singer and guitarist Thao Nguyen, front-person for the band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, gave a lively concert for NPR in Sept. 2008. Just coming off a big tour, she wows listeners with her renditions of “Bag of Hammers” and “Big Kid Table” among other songs.

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Dr. Dog

Philadelphia-based rock band Dr. Dog managed to fill every available corner of desk space during their 2008 Tiny Desk concert. The five-piece group, all playing their individual instruments, perform several songs from their various albums, including “The Beach” and “Uncovering the Old.” The group still tours and performs today, and released a new album in 2018.

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Monsieur Periné

Monsieur Periné is a Colombian group with a sound inspired by 1920s jazz. Winner of the Best New Artist award at the 2015 Latin Grammys, their 2016 Tiny Desk concert highlights some of the songs that made them famous. With the entire band and instruments backing her, lead singer Catalina Garcia sings in not only Spanish, but also mixes in bits of English, French, and Portuguese, making for an energetic, fun show.

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Andrew Bird

Known for his stylistic, unusual violin playing, as well as his astounding vocals, Andrew Bird’s 2016 Tiny Desk performance is a next-level showcase of his talent. Bird performs songs from what was his newest album at the time, “Are You Serious,” with a set list that includes “Capsized” and “Roma Fade.” In addition to his solo career, Bird has also been a member of the bands Squirrel Nut Zippers and Pinetop Seven.

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Nick Hakim

Performing music from his 2017 critically acclaimed album, “Green Twins,'' singer Nick Hakim shares what appear to be his innermost thoughts with songs such as “Cuffed” and “Needy Bees.” A Washington D.C. native, Hakim is a self-taught pianist and attended the Berklee College of Music. He recently announced the release of a new album, “Will this Make Me Good.”

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Tedeschi Trucks Band

Husband and wife duo Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks have a bluesy-rock style alongside some serious vocal and guitar skills. Their 2016 Tiny Desk Concert is the perfect foil to those skills, with a set list that includes songs such as “Anyhow” and “Don’t Know what It Is.” The couple’s debut album, “Revelator” won a Grammy in 2012, and the band has been the recipient of multiple other music awards.

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PJ Morton

Despite the cramped quarters, artist PJ Morton managed to convince NPR to let him perform with a 10-piece string quartet for his 2018 Tiny Desk show, which resulted in a huge sound and a big-concert feel. Morton, who is a keyboardist for Maroon 5, plays songs from his Grammy-nominated solo album, “Gumbo” including the hits “First Began” and “Claustrophobic.”

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IDLES

British band IDLES rocked the house with their 2019 Tiny Desk concert, playing songs such as “Never Fight a Man With a Perm” and “I’m Scum” with a frenetic, yet attractive, energy. The five-man group released their first album, “Brutalism” in 2017, and their second album, “Joy as an Act of Resistance” in 2018. The group’s style has been compared to the post-punk movement, although frontman Joe Talbot is quick to dismiss that idea.

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Snoh Aalegra

Singer Snoh Aalegra performs a stripped-down set of her music in this Feb. 2020 show. Leaving behind the punchy background beats, her voice, set against a lighter string section, truly resonates. Aalegra released her debut album, “Feels” in 2017, followed by “Ugh, Those Feels Again” in 2019.

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H.E.R.

H.E.R., otherwise known as Gabriella Wilson, actually performed twice for the NPR concert series in 2018, popping in as a special guest during singer Daniel Caesar’s Tiny Desk performance, which subsequently led to an invite for her own show The set list includes Wilson’s hit song “Hard Place,” which was nominated for a Grammy in 2019, as well as songs “Going” and “Focus.”

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Tyler, the Creator

Rapper Tyler, the Creator made an unusual request for his 2017 Tiny Desk concert: an evening show. He also had his own team set up the lighting, with a mood reminiscent of a club as opposed to just a desk in a room. The set list includes songs “Boredom” and “Glitter,” with the artist giving a no-holds (or language) barred performance. He has been nominated for, and won, multiple awards, including Album of the Year at the 2020 Grammys.

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Jacob Collier

Singer Jacob Collier, who first became popular via YouTube, gave his Tiny Desk performance in 2019. During the show, Collier breaks out several of the instruments he plays, creating a perfect harmony with his band members and even getting the audience involved toward the end. The set list includes the songs “Make Me Cry” and “Feel,” both of which are from his 2019 album, “Djesse Vol. 2.”

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Snarky Puppy

Grammy-winning group Snarky Puppy gives a lighthearted, fun performance in their 2019 Tiny Desk concert, showcasing their unique blend of jazz, funk, and gospel music, all of which is done sans vocals. The set list includes songs “Tarova” and “Xavi,” with the group recruiting the audience to provide background rhythms via synchronized clapping at one point.

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SsingSsing

Hailing from South Korea, Asian rock band SsingSsing pays homage to a traditional Korean folk music called Minyo, combining it with elements of glam rock, psychedelic rock, and disco. Their 2017 Tiny Desk concert includes the songs “Minyo Medley” and “Nanbongga.” The group also performs in full costume, a stunning, gender-bending look that includes wigs and makeup, adding to the already glamorous vibe of the show.

 

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Jorja Smith

Jorja Smith first broke out on the music scene in 2016 with the single “Blue Lights,” part of her set list for her 2018 NPR show. Smith’s lilting voice fills the room, and her rap during her rendition of “Blue Lights” is nothing less than perfect. Smith has performed with artists such as Kendrick Lamar and rapper Stormzy; she also opened for Bruno Mars during his 24K Magic World Tour.

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J.S. Ondara

J.S. Ondara credits a love for the music of Bob Dylan as his reason for becoming a singer and songwriter. Born in Nairobi, he came to the U.S. at the age of 20 and started performing at small venues. His debut album, “Tales of America” was released in 2019, and in Jan. 2020, he was invited to play a Tiny Desk concert. His set list includes the hit songs “Lebanon” and “Days of Insanity,” both from the album, which was nominated for best Americana Album at the 2019 Grammys.

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Adele

It might seem surprising that a singer with a voice as big as Adele’s would choose to perform at a venue like NPR’s Tiny Desk, but the star pulls it off without a hitch during her 2011 performance. Singing her well-known hits “Someone Like You,” “Chasing Pavements,” and “Rolling in the Deep,” this is a slightly less polished version of the now incredibly famous artist, and well worth watching.

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Mumu Fresh

Maimouna Youssef, who performs under the name Mumu Fresh, first shared her impressive vocal skills on the Tiny Desk series in early 2018, appearing as a guest vocalist with the group August Greene. She came back in July of that same year, putting on a three-song set and sharing the stage with The Roots frontman, Black Thought, and keyboardist Ray Angry. Her set list includes “Ink Pata” and “Say My Name,” showing off her multi-octave range with a blend of soul, gospel, and rap.

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Fragile Rock

While a concert featuring singing puppets may sound odd, a Tiny Desk concert featuring singingemopuppets is nothing short of fantastic. The creation of Brently Heilbron, Fragile Rock started as a theatrical group, eventually moving on to musical venues. Their 2017 Tiny Desk performance includes the songs “Wake Up to the Breakup” and “Socks Are Murder,” and even incorporates a crowd-surfing puppet as part of the show.

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Reggie Watts

Musician and comedian Reggie Watts’ Tiny Desk concert in 2012 involves the use of a deceptively simple setup of loop and delay pedals to back up his distinctive sound. The set includes “Song #4” as well as two untitled improvs, and Watts’ humor is evident alongside his phenomenal talent.

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Dan Deacon

Dan Deacon’s 2015 Tiny Desk performance is really more dance party than musical set, with the entire NPR staff getting in on the fun. Deacon, whose style is primarily an electronica blend, brought an upright piano to his show, which he attached to his computer, creating a compelling mix of sound. The set list includes the songs “Feel the Lightning” and “Sheathed Wings,” both from his 2015 album, “Gliss Riffer.”

 

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'Weird Al' Yankovic

Known for his hilarious parodies of popular songs, "Weird Al" Yankovic doesn’t disappoint in his 2010 show. Playing original songs like “You Don’t Love Me Anymore” and “CNR,” which pays homage to the band The White Stripes, it is, in true Tiny Desk style, a more pared-down version of Yankovic’s songs with a mellower vibe.

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Neil Innes

Singer, songwriter, and comedian Neil Innes, who often collaborated with none other than Brit legend Monty Python, plays a short but sweet set in this 2011 show. Backing himself up via guitar and ukulele, he plays songs such as “I’m the Urban Spaceman” and “Democracy,” all in less than 10 minutes. Innes, who died in 2019, was also known for his work on the U.K. series, “Rutland Weekend Television,” which spawned his mock-Beatles band, “The Rutles.”

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Julien Baker

Julien Baker’s pure, clear voice seems truly built for a venue like NPR’s Tiny Desk. Her 2016 show includes songs “Sprained Ankle,” from her 2015 album of the same name, and “Funeral Pyre,” which was an unreleased single that she hadn’t even officially titled at the time of her performance.

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Yusuf/Cat Stevens

Musical icon Cat Stevens, who changed his name to Yusuf when he converted to Islam in 1977, plays all the old favorites during his 2014 Tiny Desk concert. The playlist includes songs “The First Cut Is the Deepest,” which he wrote in 1967 and has since been covered by a host of popular artists, as well as his hit song “Father and Son.”

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Bernie and the Believers

Bernie and the Believers were discovered by Bob Boilen when the group entered NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, which offers musicians a chance to be featured on the series. Bernie Dalton, who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, wanted to make his mark in the world via music, and singer Essence Goldman decided to help him. Goldman sings their original songs, “Unusual Boy,” “In Your Shoes,” and “Simon’s Hero,” all of which were created by Dalton and Goldman. Bernie Dalton died in 2019, less than one year after their Tiny Desk performance.

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Rev. Sekou and the Seal Breakers

Giving a rollicking, roof-raising performance, pastor and singer Rev. Sekou, along with his band the Seal Breakers, bring not only their vibrant voices and music, but also a little bit of salvation in their 2018 show. Their set list includes the songs “Resist” and “The Devil Finds Work,” both of which are from their 2017 album, “In Times Like These.”

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Barbara Hannigan

Classical soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan, accompanied by pianist Reinbert de Leeuw, performs a series of German songs that create a flawless platform for her incredible voice. The 2018 show includes songs “Licht in der Nacht” (Light in the Night) and “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only One Who Knows Longing.) Hannigan has been the recipient of numerous awards, and was selected as the Principal Guest Conductor for Gothenburg Symphony’s 2019–2020 season.

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Gogol Bordello

Gogol Bordello’s infectious gypsy-punk style has developed quite the cult following, with shows that combine music with circus acts (tight-rope walkers, anyone?). Their 2010 Tiny Desk concert is just as wild, with bandleader Eugene Hutz closing the show by dancing on the NPR office desks. The group was formed in 1999 and continues to tour widely, and they've appeared in a number of films.

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Red Baraat

Performing a fusion of funk, jazz, and hip-hop, alongside the sounds of Northern India, Red Baraat’s 2012 NPR concert is an enticing mix of horns and vocals. Dhol player Sunny Jain is a central part of the group, putting out some amazing beats on the double-sided barrel drum. Jain has performed with multiple artists, and was chosen as a Jazz Ambassador by the U.S. Department of State and Kennedy Center in 2002.

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The Cristina Pato Trio

Cristina Pato might play the gaita, or Galician bagpipes, but her music goes far beyond any expectations of traditional bagpipe music. The trio gives a resounding Tiny Desk performance in this 2013 show, playing songs that include “Mundos Celtas” and “Alalá Re-rooted.” Pato has been performing since the age of 12, and has produced six solo gaita recordings.

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George Li

Pianist George Li plays a host of intricate compositions on the Tiny Desk upright piano for his 2018 show, a surprising accomplishment considering his set list contains songs more likely to be played on a baby grand. Playing music from Vladimir Horowitz and Franz Liszt, he gives a flawless performance, with a range of sound that makes you feel like you’re sitting in a concert hall.

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Dirty Three

Made up of band members Warren Ellis, Mick Turner, and Jim White, Dirty Three puts on an eclectic, toe-tapping, and occasionally loud show for their 2012 Tiny Desk concert. Their set list includes “Rain Song” and “The Pier,” both from what was their newly released album at the time, “Toward the Low Sun.” That album went on to make the top 50 of Australia’s ARIA Albums Chart.

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John Prine

Beloved American singer-songwriter John Prine performed in 2018 for the Tiny Desk crew, playing some older favorites such as “All the Best” and “Souvenirs” as well as a new song, “Caravan of Fools.” Prine died on April 7, 2020, as a result of complications from COVID-19.

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Wu-Tang Clan

The Wu-Tang Clan’s 2018 Tiny Desk performance celebrates the 25th anniversary of their first album, “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” which was released in 1993. The show consists of a diverse medley of their hits from across the years, with the set list simply titled “Wu Classics.” Wu-Tang Clan has sold millions of albums worldwide, as well as the individual members producing solo work and helping launch the careers of other artists.

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The National

Rock band The National, which formed in Cincinnati in 1999, were guests at NPR’s Tiny Desk in 2013. The group brought what was nearly their entire ensemble of instruments, including horns, piano, and guitar. Playing songs from their new album at the time, “Trouble Will Find Me,” their acoustic renditions of songs such as “This Is the Last Time” and “Pink Rabbits” are as haunting as they are moving.

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Mac Miller

Backed by guitar, piano loop, and string quartet, the late rapper Mac Miller gives a simple and rather poignant performance in his 2018 Tiny Desk concert. His set list includes the songs “Small Worlds” and “2009,” both from what would be his last album while alive, “Swimming.” This would also end up being one of Miller’s last concerts, as he died of a suspected drug overdose just one month after the NPR show.

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The Roots

With the help of vocalist Bilal, The Roots pack themselves and their instruments behind the Tiny Desk to perform a 12-minute set of “It Ain’t Fair,” the main track from the movie, “Detroit,” in this 2017 show. In addition to very busy production and performance schedules, the jazzy hip-hop group also serves as the house band for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”

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Noname

Artist Fatimah Warner, who goes by the stage moniker Noname, performed for the Tiny Desk series in 2017. Her set list includes the songs “Diddy Bop” and “Yesterday,” as well as a medley of the three songs “Reality Check,” “Casket Pretty,” and “Bye Bye Baby.” While the lyrics to some of her songs can be a bit sad, her innate charisma gives the show an overall feeling of positivity.

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Nickel Creek

The members of Nickel Creek are no strangers to the Tiny Desk. Each has individually been part of other artists' performances at various Tiny Desk shows over the years. In this 2014 show, the trio, consisting of siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, and mandolin player Chris Thile, do what they do best: harmonize flawlessly while accompanying themselves on guitar, violin, and mandolin. Nickel Creek won the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 2002.

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Chris Stapleton

Country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton, who has written hits for stars such as George Strait and Kenny Chesney, performed for NPR in 2015 and was joined by his wife for some of the vocals. The set list includes the songs “More of You” and “When the Stars Come Out” and feels exactly as Tiny Desk concerts are intended—both private and cozy.

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The Cranberries

Performing in 2012, The Cranberries, who hit the height of their popularity in the early-’90s, sing a set list comprised of both older songs, like “Zombie” and “Linger” and a couple new ones, “Raining in my Heart” and “Tomorrow,” from what was their newest album at that time, “Roses.” The group was formed in Limerick, Ireland, in 1989 and sold millions of albums over the course of their career, five of which made the top 20 on the Billboard 200. Their lead singer, Dolores O’Riordan, died in 2018, just prior to the release of their last album, “In the End.”

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Gary Clark Jr.

Fusing blues, rock, and a bit of hip-hop, Gary Clark Jr.’s 2019 Tiny Desk concert brought in quite a fanbase. Playing a set list from his album, “This Land,” he gets the crowd rocking with his heavy, soulful sound. Clark has been playing on the festival circuit for years, has won multiple awards, and in 2001, the mayor of his hometown, Austin, Texas, proclaimed May 3 to be “Gary Clark Jr.” day.

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Sesame Street

The whole gang from “Sesame Street” takes over NPR’s Tiny Desk in this 2019 concert, singing all those favorite childhood songs to commemorate the show’s 50-year anniversary. Their set list includes the classic “Sesame Street” theme song, “Sunny Days,” as well as “People in Your Neighborhood” and “What I Am.” Young or old, there’s nothing quite like a roomful of Muppets to make you smile.

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Imogen Heap

Singer-songwriter Imogen Heap is classically trained as a pianist and cellist, but she truly excels in the audio-engineering end of things when it comes to music. Putting her beautiful voice in harmony with a multitude of sounds, she uses special-tech gloves of her own creation, called “MI.MU Gloves.” The gloves electronically alter her voice as she moves her arms, and the music created is truly unbelievable, giving her 2019 concert the sound and feel of a much larger venue.

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The Internet

This L.A. band combines electronica, hip-hop, jazz, and funk to create their own distinct sound. Their 2015 concert showcases songs from their new album at the time, “Ego Death,” which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Album.

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The Tallest Man on Earth

Swedish folk singer Kristian Matsson, who performs under the stage name The Tallest Man on Earth, plays a few songs from his debut album, “Shallow Grave” in this 2009 concert. Matsson’s voice has been compared to a young Bob Dylan, and his guitar-playing is a true complement to each song.

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